A few weeks prior to arriving in Rwanda, I had logged in and out of the official visa application site about a dozen times, each time kicked off the site for one technical difficulty or another. Because of this frustrating interaction with technology, I decided arriving without a visa would give me the best insight into the ease of travel to Rwanda. My experience: easy-breezy. After a friendly greeting from the immigrations officer, it took answering 5 questions (Who? What? When? Where? How long will you be staying?) and, in less than 3 minutes, I was embarking on an unforgettable journey.
Having been to East Africa close to a dozen times, Rwanda was on the bucket list. A new destination for my amazing group of ‘conscious travelers’: an adventure of a lifetime to a stunning little perpetually green country that boasts a thousand hills and magical encounters with endangered mountain gorillas. But, believe me, it is not all “monkey business” here.
Today, reasons to visit this remarkable country abound. Rwanda is the safest country in Africa and possibly one of the cleanest on the continent. There is not a bit of trash or floating plastic bags anywhere to be seen. In 1998 the Government of Rwanda revived a community service program called umuganda, a traditional practice of public service in which residents unite on the last Saturday of every month to perform a designated good deed, including cleaning up the streets of unsightly garbage. Rwanda became one of the first countries to ban the production, import, sale, and use of plastic bags. Animal and environmental conservation in Rwanda is a big priority. The country is committed to the restoration of degraded ecosystems such as wetlands, lakes and natural forests. Rwanda’s landscape is breathtaking. It is made up of 23 sparkling lakes, 2 dormant volcanoes, three extinct volcanoes, and varying national parks.
Additionally, Rwanda has a thriving capital city, Kigali. Buzzing with enterprise and sophistication, Kigali is quickly becoming a vibrant art, culture, fashion, and foodie destination for visitors. We visited Inema Art Center, an art collective that hosts a wide variety of programs, projects and initiatives to expand creative arts in Rwanda. Take a fashion tour of the city and shop ‘til you drop: on this tour you can meet female fashion entrepreneurs, jewelry designers, visit a collective of women tailors, and get fitted for your own modern chic African outfit.
Hungry? Book a table at Poivre Noir. The menu at this bistro combines French and Belgian influences with Rwandan ingredients, here you can let the good wines flow too. Kigali also has a small choice of boutique hotels like The Retreat. Our group stayed at this 5-star, eco-friendly, luxury property, owned by American expats Alissa and Josh Ruxin. While we were there, we heard through the “jungle grape vine” The Retreat was being expanded to host two very special royal guests from the UK. (Shhh, it’s a secret.)
It’s no secret, however, that part of what makes travel interesting are the people you meet along the way, like the Ruxins. In 2008 they moved to Rwanda when Josh was hired to help advise the country after the genocide. During this time, he wrote a book about their family’s experience called A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda. Many of us read the memoir prior to our trip. It was not only a love story, but also an insightful book on the challenges Rwanda faced after the genocide and how the country has been able to overcome some of these profound obstacles. I recommend every tourist read this memoir before visiting, especially if you stay at The Retreat. If you are as lucky as we were, you may even get to host your very first book club abroad. Don’t forget to invite the author—I am sure he would be delighted to lead the discussion.
Rwandans have certainly endured their fair share of unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy. In 1994, the Rwandan Genocide was in full swing. In 100 days nearly 1 million Tutsi were ruthlessly and brutally murdered at the hands of their Hutu neighbors. And, when visiting Rwanda, it is difficult not to think about these atrocities and what these beautiful people endured. It is difficult not to look for signs, like a scar or a missing limb. Or not to be haunted by your imagination and to question the darkest side of humanity. But Rwandans do not want to be remembered for this unimaginable, tragic time in their history. Rwandans want to reclaim their story. Today, being Hutu or Tutsi is simply irrelevant. Rwandans are looking to tomorrow. They are resilient.
“Resilience” is a keyword in Rwanda, not only to describe the people but also nature. In the 1980s, mountain gorilla populations had dwindled to only 240 individuals, with poaching, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and disease taking its toll on their populations. Famous primatologist Dian Fossey, who died in 1985, started studying the mountain gorilla population in 1967. She would surely be shocked there are any mountain gorillas left on the planet. She predicted they would be extinct by 2000. But today, mountain gorilla numbers are on the rise: populations have increased to more than 1000 individuals. While the species is still under great threat, co-existence of nature and people is at the heart of Rwanda’s conservation success. The government sees the importance of building communities around the spirit of coexisting with wildlife.
Wildlife tourism is one of Rwanda’s biggest foreign revenue earners. According to World Wildlife Foundation, a single habituated mountain gorilla can indirectly generate a profit of around 2.5 million dollars during its lifetime from tourist income. Mountain gorillas are the country’s wealth and to trek with them is one of the richest experiences under the sun—or “in the mist.”
The lead guide of our group referred to us as “Muzungus in the mist” (or Swahili for “white people”) and, to be fair, it wasn’t mist, it was pouring rain. But we were here to trek with gorillas and not even a torrential downpour could put a damper on our spirits. We were properly equipped with walking sticks, waterproof hiking boots, and water-resistant jackets, and our gators were cinched tightly around our ankles, hugging our shins. To protect our fingers from prickly vines, we donned “gorilla grip,” slip resistant, industrial-strength gloves. The walking sticks came in handy to help hoist our body-weight up from muddy ravines and to give us balance along slippery trails.
Best of all, we were chaperoned by “jungle escorts” who are actually professional porters. These guys did all of the heavy-lifting. They carried backpacks that were filled to the brim with personal items like cameras, granola bars, water bottles and extra layers of clothing They offered additional security during the riskier parts of the climb, extending a helping hand and firm grip to hoist each person up steep inclines and over tough obstacles. And, to be clear, when someone who has trekked hours to see the gorillas recommends hiring a porter prior to embarking on your journey, just do it. The man or woman (yes, there are women porters) of your gorilla trekking dreams will be waiting for you, with open arms, at the head of the muddy trail. Don’t be bashful. Lock eyes. Nod. Grab the hand of your “knight in soaking rain gear” and let your indispensable porter take you away. Trust me!
Not only can you see mountain gorillas in Rwanda, you can also see the vivacious golden monkeys of Volcanoes National Park. These monkeys are playful and inquisitive. They often spend their time leaping from bamboo branches or frolicking on the forest floor. They are very entertaining to watch and are not to be missed. Take a half-day and visit the habituated group that lives at the base of Mount Sabyinyo. It’s an easy hike. It’s a great way to prepare for your gorilla adventure. Best of all, permits are only $100.
Most of us know this, but gorillas are not monkeys. Mountain gorillas are a part of the ape species, just like humans. While humans are identified by fingerprints, every gorilla is identified by their unique nose print. Gorillas share 98.3% of our DNA. Either we are almost gorilla or gorillas are almost human. Either way, this close relation between our two species makes seeing gorillas in the wild all the more astonishing. Despite the mountain gorilla’s obvious physical power and size, gorillas are gentle giants who display many human-like behaviors and emotions, such as laughter and sadness. They also grieve their dead. Gorillas live in family groups of five to ten, but it’s common to find communities of 30 or more. Gorilla families are led by a dominant adult male, or silverback. The silverback holds his position for years. The bond between the silverback and his females is the basis of gorilla social life.
Females will give birth around the age of 10 or 11 to only one baby every four to six years. Over her lifetime, she will likely have no more than four children. With the rate of reproduction in gorillas this low, it’s difficult for them to recover from population declines. So, imagine how absolutely amazing it was getting a first glimpse of a mother cradling her tiny golden-eyed, silky-haired two-week-old baby.
And, you know what else is amazing? Mountain gorillas can only survive in the wild. You will not find this species of gorilla in a zoo. They thrive at high elevations in the lush green, volcanic slopes of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, truly, the only way to lay eyes on one of our closest living relatives is to venture into their native forests. Full disclosure, to hike up to high elevations where mountain gorillas live requires one to have a proper level of physical fitness. Fortunately, it is possible to choose the preferred level of voyage: easy, medium, or difficult. However, this does not guarantee you will get what you asked for. Our group chose medium, but we definitely ended up on the difficult scale. After a 6-hour trek on muddy trails, through potato farms and bamboo forests, up and over 75-foot ravines, past gangly jungle vines, stepping over 2-foot earthworms, and avoiding stinging nettle, we finally reached our destination. The “troop” had been spotted, but they were leisurely making their way across a deep uncrossable ravine. Meeting delayed, we had to wait 30 more minutes. We were on gorilla time!
Our guide briefed us on what to expect next: “You will have only one hour with the family. Take as many photos as you would like but be sure to give yourself some time to just sit, observe, and relish in this moment.” He continued, “When you meet the gorillas, stay calm. Keep a good distance, at least two body lengths. If a gorilla approaches, let them. They can touch you, but you can not touch them.” I thought, “Ummmm, okay! Should we be terrified by the prospect of being pummeled by a 500-pound, protective silverback daddy or exhilarated by the thought of a wee gorilla baby using our limbs like a jungle gym?” Time stood still. The anticipation of coming face to face with our family of great apes was soon to be a reality.
The trackers alerted our guide that the gorillas had stopped. They were settling down for their usual afternoon snack of greens and siestas in the sun. Our porters bushwhacked a direct trail through the thick, prickly vegetation. We followed along in single file, eager for our first glimpse of the famed “Gorillas in the Mist.” When we arrived, there was no mist, only a beautiful sloping valley of green, illuminated by the sun and dotted with black velvety gorilla profiles. Our guide gave a couple of gentle grunts to announce our presence (gorilla talk for, “We come in peace. We mean no harm.”) The gorillas responded in kind. It was safe to join the family.
As we slowly made our way over, the steep incline of the valley felt unstable. One misstep of our human feet, and any one of us would have easily tumbled right into the wildest playdate of joyful juveniles rolling all around. A curious mama strolled feet away, giving her wide-eyed baby a piggyback ride. It was as if she was giving the baby a better view of the parade of the bipedal primates before her. A handsome young boy lounged on a plush bed of leaves, scratching his potbelly and nibbling on nettle, his lips green with the equivalent of a human milk mustache. A proud new mom held her 2-week-old baby, who at the time was the youngest baby in the park. The baby was so tiny it was difficult to tell where one hairy body began and the other continued. But luckily, the slightest shift of her body revealed perfect little fingers, toes, and opposable thumbs. There were coddling mama gorillas with young babies everywhere. Maybe that explains why the slumbering silverback never opened his eyes, not even for a moment. It’s a lot of work being the sole provider of such a large family unit.
It’s also tough work being a lead guide in the gorilla trekking industry. And time management is a big part of it. Our guide had to break the difficult news and announce to our group of eight that it was time to pack it up. Our allotted time with the gorillas had lapsed. Sad it was over, we reluctantly dragged our muddy boots and lingered on the edge of gorilla paradise just a moment longer. We each took a final gorilla family photo. As we made our way back to the trail, we each made backwards glance at the enchanted forest we were leaving behind. After a year of planning and weeks of anticipation, our magical hour with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas was over in the snap of a jungle vine, but the memories of spending time with these endangered gentle giants will be imprinted on our hearts and minds forever.
What to do in Rwanda
- Begin and end your journey at the 5-star luxury hotel The Retreat and explore Kigali.
- Hungry? Don’t miss the opportunity to dine at any of these incredible restaurants: Fusion, Heaven, and Poivre Noir. Say hello to the owner of Poivre Noir, Natalie, and be sure to follow her on Instagram @jolitropisme to check out her lifestyle blog.
- Need a little caffeine pick me up to help with jet lag? Enjoy a Rwandan coffee at Question Coffee and take a specialty coffee master class.
- Interested in shopping? Tour the vibrant community of Nyamirambo and be sure to visit the The Nyamirambo Women’s Center. Here, everything is embroidered with a little heart, taking “made in Rwanda with love” to a whole new level. Not only that, the craftsmanship is impeccable and your love of shopping directly supports disadvantaged women and their families.
- Be inspired by the power of art at Inema Art Center, a collective of Rwandan artists who use their art and creative expression to help bring the community and country alive. Introduce yourself to artist and founder, Emmanuel Nukuranga. Tell him Here Today, Africa Tomorrow sent you.
- Visit powerful historic sites like The Kigali Genocide Memorial and The Genocide Memorial at Nyamata Church. Visiting these sites may move you to tears, but these experiences are also a good reminder of the incredible resilience of humanity, even in the darkest days.
- Support the extraordinary female entrepreneurs and artisans of Imirasire (learn more here). Visit their co-op and bring home an armful of colorful handwoven baskets. These make the perfect gifts for family and friends.
- Spend one day trekking to see the golden monkeys and a second day to see the majestic and endangered mountain gorillas. While you are there, stay at the stunning Virunga Lodge.
- And don’t forget to make a difference in conservation by supporting the incredible work of Rwanda’s Gorilla Doctors or Dian Fossey’s foundation, Gorilla Fund.